Searching for Lessons of Hope in NYC Schools

Published December 21, 2014

Review of Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools, by Joel Klein, Harper, 320 pages, $21.16, 2014

Anyone involved in the administration of K-12 public school education can learn a great deal from this history of the New York City public schools under the direction of Joel Klein during Michael Bloomberg’s first two terms as mayor of New York. It is poorly titled, however, as one has to dig hard to find the lessons learned in this detailed chronology of all Klein attempted to change as the chancellor of the city’s public school system.

Although Klein appears to maintain an upbeat attitude as he describes his travails, the book can at times be depressing because at nearly every turn Klein finds himself fighting an uphill battle with the teachers unions. Klein is a very liberal Democrat who openly embraces the work of the most famous union leader of an earlier day, Albert Shanker, and a man few objective people could love, Al Sharpton. He supports all the efforts of President Barack Obama, including No Child Left Behind and currently and perhaps most important, today’s Common Core standards.

In the preface of the book, he says, “The historically quaint notion that communities should control their kids’ education—long a hobby horse of conservatives who fear anything originating from the federal government—has led neither to active citizen involvement nor to real experimentation at the local level…. In an era of global, high-tech competition, the notion that it is fitting for students in different states to meet different academic standards, no matter how low, makes no sense.”

During his tenure, Klein closed dozens of failing schools and began hundreds of new, smaller schools and created real possibilities for school choice. Despite rabid opposition from the teachers unions, he encouraged the growth of charter schools.

Klein’s Tenure

The first chapter of the book is dedicated to Klein’s biography; he grew up on the streets of New York City, was educated at Columbia University and Harvard law, spent much of his career in government as an aide to President Bill Clinton, and then worked in private law practice.

Early in chapter two, Klein summarizes his uphill battle as chancellor: “Long controlled by the political patronage practiced by state lawmakers, City Council members, and borough presidents, administrators within the system were accustomed to playing insider games that kept them safe in their jobs. Teachers enjoyed the protection of an extraordinarily powerful union that too often spent its time defending the worst among them.”

Although Klein had no teaching experience, he was looking for a change and a way to make a difference when he took the job. He had no visions of advancing in the education field, which made him impervious to those who resisted change. He was driven by two core values, equity and excellence in education for all the children of New York City.

Working with Others

Klein developed a strong relationship with Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who helped fund organizations that got heavily involved in bringing better teachers and top-rated charter schools to New York City.

Klein also formed a Leadership Academy to train top teachers to become principals. Normal attrition allowed the replacement of almost 200 principals a year, along with 50 more at small new schools put in place each year. But while New York was becoming a model for school reformers, Klein said, “We continued to face relentless criticism at home from the teachers’ and principals’ unions.”

Although limited in the direct contact he was able to have with teachers, due to union rules, he was amazed and disappointed by the large number of teachers satisfied with a very poor status quo.

Klein admits to one mistake: not adequately involving parents who were passionate in their concern about their children’s education. They were essentially ignored as he moved to change the culture in New York City education.

Increasing Accountability

By 2007, Klein instituted a program of transparency, issuing grades from A to F on all of the 1,500 city schools. He found poorly graded schools actually improved the following year. It also became obvious smaller schools were doing better than large ones.

In the course of his tenure he reorganized, more than once, how this mass of schools would be collectively administered, and he ultimately learned less is best: he gave all principals the real power they desired in exchange for agreeing to be measured by very strict standards.

One of Klein’s most satisfying achievements was changing the tenure system from an almost automatic process to one based on true merit without interference from the unions.

In the final chapters of the book, Klein makes a number of mistakes, in this reviewer’s opinion. First, he never provides a list of the “lessons of hope” promised in the book’s title. Second, he offers a virtual commercial for his new job after leaving the New York schools in 2010 to work with a division of News Corp. developing new technology for the classroom. Third, he ends with a strong argument against local control of schools.

As noted earlier, Klein’s book has great value for school administrators, but it falls short of being a very useful lesson for those of us interested in improving the education of our nation’s children.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director at The Heartland Institute.

Image by Dartmouth College.